Review – Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre

Monday 2 December 2013

emilIf you feel like watching the detectives you’d better find your inner child and take it along with you.

Or better yet, if you accidentally happen to possess some of your own, or nephews or nieces, or perhaps even a godchild of a certain age then take them. For this is the way forward to really enjoy Emil and the Detectives.

Be warned, there are an awful lot of children in this Christmas show at the National. It’s not at all Christmassy thankfully, but if you’ve ever entered a seemingly empty tube carriage only to find a huge school party suddenly jump aboard to disturb your peaceful meditations this is how you may feel.

Phil ran out of fingers quite swiftly counting the kiddie-winkies occupying the stage. Somewhere between 50 and 60 of them. Imagine the expense of chaperoning that lot.

Anyhoo, this version of the classic children’s book by Erich Kästner comes to us courtesy of an adaptation by Carl Miller (who, by chance, Phil’s companion for the evening knew from her days at uni) and director Bijan Sheibani. Phil’s childhood is so long ago he can’t remember if he ever read the book or saw the 1964 Disney version (there are several film adaptations in German).

It concerns Emil who lives alone with his hairdresser mother (Naomi Frederick) in Neustadt. She sends him to visit his grandmother in Berlin to take along a stash of hard-earned cash for her. En route he falls asleep on a train after accepting an apple from the evilly moustachioed dumpling-loving Mr Snow (Stuart McQuarrie) – Snow White? Geddit? (He’s Max Grundeis in the original book) – and is robbed.

Arriving penniless he’s caught fare evading on Berlin’s public transport and is helped out by a kindly journalist, offering us a helpful reminder that this tale is complete fantasy. Emil falls in with a gang of children who form his detectives and help him try to expose the villain.

Whoever played Emil performed his huge role in a remarkably assured and understated way. Impressive. It’s a shame there seemed to be no indication which of Ethan Hammer, Toby Murray or Daniel Patten it was on the night.

Rattling along at 2 hours (including interval) with an early kick off at 7pm (a few are at 6pm), you’re out at 9pm (or even 8pm!), so a sizeable window for post-show drinkies or time to get your charges back home in front of their computers to open their own windows on the interweb.

Bunny Christie’s German expressionistic sets with attractive use of black and white projections (59 Productions) conjure up the locations effectively and includes a quite spooky descent into Berlin’s sewers. The kids chase through the audience pushing between rows of seats at one point. But some of the movement when the cast rush around the stage needs to be much crisper. It should be tighter than Phil after a Christmas party, perhaps this will come (this was a preview blah, blah).

The youngsters on stage seem to be having a lot of fun, much more fun than Phil had, but he was entertained just about enough and there’s a rather good gag which even made the po-faced man sitting next to Phil smile. A very young boy behind Phil was extremely well-behaved throughout and looked thrilled by it all at the end.

Strangely there were very few children in the audience as it’s definitely a show for them.

Rating (presumably higher for children)

13 Responses to “Review – Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre”

  1. Trevor Chenery Says:

    Emil & The Detectives. Shouldn’t that be Diet Coke or Red Bull cans half-full ?

  2. celia grace Says:

    What night did you go?

  3. Peter Says:

    I imagine any of the children in the cast could have written a more mature review. They would certainly have come up with something a little more entertaining than this folksy ode.

  4. joanna Says:

    I saw this in -preview, and thought it was one of the worst christmas shows the National has offered in years. School play with better ligthing and sets in my view.

    • Bel Says:

      Also saw it in preview and totally agree with all these sentiments. And the National has the cheek to advertise it as “in the tradition of War Horse and His Dark Materials”. What a travesty! Maybe though there’s been a massive transformation in the last week or so. One can but hope.

    • David Nice Says:

      What on earth are you on about, Joanna? Are you blind to the fabulous designs and projections? Tell me any school play that can come within a million miles and I’ll go and see it. No major gimmicks in the overload style of the West End theatre but an evocative fantasy version of late 1920s Berlin.

      This does all seem very grudging. All I can say is that everyone around us, from 3 to 80ish bonded over the sheer good fun of it all and there was that palpable buzz in the auditorium after you only get after a good show.

  5. Paul Says:

    First the Liola tripe and now this ludicrous amateur production of Emil. Neither of them are plays fit for any stage anywhere. Wooden characters and wooden actors. I felt sorry for those who will pay £48 for a seat- give it to the NSPCC.

  6. heather Says:

    Wow, you lot are rude, it is a kids show and you are behaving like bratty little kids.

  7. npm Says:

    I thought it was rather lovely but possibly a bit talky and unspectacular for younger kids. The sets were cute, I admired all the bicycling and it moved at a decent pace.

  8. Glen Moranjie Says:

    I saw this last night – okay but nothing amazing. Occasional nice touches with the set.

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